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Presbyterian Day School student project brings small relief to Memphis food deserts

The team conceptualized 19 designs for the project and 19 pantries were built and decorated.

The boys were intrigued by The Free Little Pantries, the idea of creating little neighborhood food pantries or “blessing boxes.”

Presbyterian Day School fifth-graders started with a simple question “What do people need to survive?” The solution? Blessing Boxes, or tiny food pantries that are placed strategically in high-needs neighborhoods.

It started as a simple project.

Presbyterian Day School fifth-graders were to design a needs-based solution for class.

The problem? Well, that was up to them.

For starters, the boys asked themselves: “What do people need to survive?”

Then they gathered into groups and began brainstorming. Eventually, the conversations began revolving around food and its accessibility.

The solution? “Blessing Boxes,” or food pantries that are placed strategically in high-needs neighborhoods, such as Orange Mound.

The first two boxes have been installed outside of a home at 823 Semmes Street and near My Cup of Tea at 3028 Carnes Avenue. In mid-July, more boxes will be installed at Bethlehem Baptist Church, 273 Ingle Avenue; Orange Mound Ministries, 845 Marechalneil Street and Clayborn Temple, 294 Hernando Street.

To determine how and where to place the mobile food pantries, the instructors at PDS employed a learning technique called EDGE Design Thinking which leads students to holistically evaluate a problem and its potential local solutions. The learning paradigm is an acronym for: Explore the problem; Develop empathy; Grow your ideas; Evaluate prototypes.

During the research, the students found a lot of information on Memphis and food deserts. 

The first food pantry was installed in the Orange Mound area next to My Cup of Tea. About twenty kids came after school to help with the installation.

A food desert is an area that lacks ready access to fresh, healthy food. As recently as 2010, Memphis’ food desert problem was ranked the worst in the nation by the Food Research Action Committee.

The project provided an opportunity for students of PDS, which is located in one of the more affluent areas of East Memphis, to learn about the greater Memphis area where 30 percent of residents live in poverty. 

“All of this information was put together and the boys were surprised to see there were food deserts in Memphis. So, the boys began to ask us ‘So where are the solutions for this?’” said Alice Wilson, a learning specialist at the East Memphis school.

Continuing their research, the students kept an eye out for local articles specific to food deserts and people working toward local solutions.

“They came up with all different kinds of things from those articles. They wanted to take trucks out into neighborhoods. Build coolers to put cold water in them. But we eventually were led to the food pantry idea,” said Windy May, a fifth grade teacher at PDS. 

The boys came across The Free Little Pantries, which are small neighborhood food pantries that popped up in Fayetteville, Ark, last spring. 

Intrigued by the idea, the boys decided to interview a local expert on the subject. They reached out to Merge Memphis co-founder Sherry McClure.

A local non-profit, Merge Memphis’ mission is to feed the hungry. They provide food for shelters and individuals in distressed circumstances. They also deliver packages of food to families.

When she visited PDS, McClure clarified the lack of access to healthy food as well as the high level of food insecurity in Memphis. She explained the details about food pantries such as how they are sealed and what food is needed in one area versus another. According to Feeding America, food insecurity affects 405,000 people in the Mid-South at a rate of 21.6 percent in Shelby County. 

The students took their original blueprints and drew them out to scale on the whiteboard walls at PDS.

“The boys were so impressed. By the end, they were like ‘Can we come serve on your truck?’, or ‘Can we deliver food?’” said May.

After the interview, they knew they found their solution and went forward with designing, building and installing food pantries.

Two family members with construction expertise volunteered and spoke to the students. After researching blueprints, the students developed original three-dimensional designs.

“They knew they could research design specs online but, they wanted to interview a real expert on the matter,” said Wilson.

Once the box dimensions were squared away, they calculated the amount of wood needed, established a budget and shopped to stay within the allotted $100 per pantry. Unsurprisingly, the build dovetailed with the PDS math curriculum.

“What was really cool is they had to actually use what they had learned in my class to do this. They used their geometry skills. They had to work with fractions, measurement and decimals,” said May.

An anonymous donor wrote a check for part of the expense. PDS rounded it out with funds left over in their budget. Students donated materials like shingles, wood and decorations.

The team conceptualized 19 designs. So, Wilson and May, along with their spouses, spent a weekend making the cuts. In the end, all 19 pantries were made.

On the big day of building, parents volunteered as well as all of the fifth-grade teachers.

Construction day was April 28. Parents volunteered as well as the fifth-grade teachers. A few grandparents even came in from out of town to help.

“They had the best time…hammering…using electric drills. They also learned the skill of what’s it like to build something,” said Wilson.

When complete, McClure and her husband picked up the pantries. They are to be installed by Merge Memphis as need and support arise.

Merge Memphis set up three of their own pantries in September. Each week, volunteers restock them with non-perishables. Bottled water, protein bars, and instant meals, like soup or noodles, are at a premium. Cereal and juice packs work too.

The first was installed in the Orange Mound area, next to My Cup of Tea. Around 20 kids showed up after school to help.

Sponsors of the pantries agree to supply a year’s worth of food. So far, two of the PDS pantries have been installed. Three more will be installed on July 13.

Next year, the students plan to survey their accomplishment. The requisite questions will be asked. Did the pantries make a difference? Do they dedicate more time and effort to more pantries? Or do they move on to another solution?

“They are already pondering 'What does that look like?,’ said Wilson of the upcoming year's follow-up to the EDGE learning project. 

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